Sealed borders and closed minds between Morocco and Algeria
Ever since Algeria achieved its independence in 1962, its relations with its neighbour, Morocco, have been tense.
Within a year of independence, the two countries fought a short border conflict known as “the war of the sands”. It reflected Moroccan resentment at its borders with Algeria which were drawn up by France.
The war resolved nothing but it did set the tone for the future – suspicion and resentment.
Suspicion because each believes the other is seeking to outwit it in terms of regional hegemony. Resentment because Morocco finds Algeria’s pretensions to regional status to be an affront to its thousand-year history as a state.
In turn, Algeria resents its loss of status in the region during the civil war in the 1990s.
There are more specific grounds for antagonism. Algeria considers Morocco’s monarchical system as outmoded traditionalism.
Morocco distrusts Algeria’s claim to leadership through its leading position in the non-aligned movement during the second half of the 20th century.
The Western Sahara issue is where these tensions come to the surface.
Algeria has harboured the Western Saharans’ national liberation movement – the Polisario Front – while Morocco insists that the region is part of its territory that was amputated by Spanish colonialism.
In reality this is a dispute between the two North African countries over regional status.
Then there is Algerian resentment over Morocco’s decision in 1994 to close their common border fearing terrorist spillovers. Now Algiers has refused to open the border crossing despite Moroccan initiatives in that direction.
It highlights that ensions between them remain high despite the fact that Morocco depends on Algerian gas.
Algiers exports gas to Spain and Portugal through Morocco and the two counties share a common, integrated electricity grid.
Mauritania joins the game
A prime example of Algerian sensitivity over the issue emerged last week. There was a gust of anger in Algiers over the decision in Mauritania to expel an Algerian diplomat from Nouakchott.
Belkacem Alchroati, a senior adviser to the Algerian embassy in Noakchott, had apparently upset Ould Abdelaziz, the Mauritanian president, by persuading a local newspaper to publish an article attacking Morocco’s growing influence in the region.
Algeria, in response, expelled the first secretary of the Mauritanian embassy in Algiers.
It called on its friends in the region not to attend a meeting in Nouakchott for North African interior ministers. Only the Moroccan interior minister attended the event with dark hints of other sanctions to come.
The Algerian press reported the fracas with a injured innocence. They pointed out that Algeria has in recent years gone out of its way to engage with Mauritania.
It had helped Nouakchott pay off its foreign debts, invested in the country and rolling out the red carpet during a Mauritanian presidential visit three years ago.
The criticisms, however, overlooked – no doubt deliberately – the fact that Nouakchott is aware that the Moroccan army is deployed on its border with Western Sahara, and so goes out of its way not to upset Rabat.
Behind the public disagreements, of course, lies the ongoing rivalry between the Maghrib’s two largest countries.
Morocco has quietly been extending its influence inside West Africa in recent years in response to Algeria’s determination to isolate it over regional security policy.
Rabat has encouraged its Moroccan banks to invest in Mauritania and has also put itseld forward as the leading religious influence in the region.
Morocco opened a school for training West African imams in Rabat and King Mohamed VI also made a highly successful state visit to the region eighteen months ago
Algiers has sought to construct a regional security structure to combat instability and extremism in the Sahel region, particularly in Mali, ever since al-Qaeda emerged there.
It has capitalised on the anxiety caused in Paris and Washington by a series of unexpected events in the Sahara region.
The Azawad declaration of independence in northern Mali in 2012 led to al-Qaeda’s taking over Mali towns – Timbuktoo, Kidal and Gao.
Al-Qaeda’s attack on the In Amenas gas facility in eastern Algeria in 2013 also brought the reality of extremists groups’ growing strength in the Sahara area.
Algeria has courted US engagement in security initatives and tried to block Morocco from being included.
Petulance as policy
The reality is that neither country can really afford substituting petulance for responsible diplomacy given the magnitude of the security threats in the region.
Despite combined French and African Union intervention in Mali, the strength of al-Qaeda and other militant groups has not been eliminated.
The militia war in Libya, which has seen a rise in extremist groups, threatens to spill across Algeria’s unguarded borders. This could link up with the crisis in the Sahel.
To counter the threat, the combined resources of Algeria and Morocco will eventually be needed, particularly if Algiers’ honours its constitution that bans its army from engaging in war outside its borders.
Cooperation between both countries will also be needed if a security in the region is to be assured.
For that to happen, Morocco will have to resolve the Western Saharan issue and Algeria will have to overcome its distaste for Moroccan pretensions about its regional status.
Due to continued wranglings between the two countries that might – regrettably – take a very long time to come about.